Story last updated at 7/8/2009 - 11:36 am
Salmon fishermen at Bristol Bay were bracing for another surge of reds over the July 4 weekend - and likely more trip limits.
The peak of the sockeye run is on its way, said Susie Jenkins last Friday. Jenkins is a "company liaison" at the Alaska Department of Fish & Game office in Dillingham, where she is in daily contact with fishermen and processors.
"It's hard to pinpoint exactly when they'll be here, but the big push of the run is yet to come," she said.
The second pulse of fish gives processing crews barely enough time to catch their breath after last week's huge haul of 10 million reds, taken throughout the Bay in about three days. The major processing companies were unable to handle the plug of fish, and on June 28 they put fishermen on catch limits, the earliest date ever; some suspended buying altogether.
"What a way to start off the season - on trip limits," scoffed a lifelong Bay fisherman who asked to remain anonymous. "And it looks like we'll end the season on limits too."
The first run of sockeye salmon arrived several days early and seemed to catch some processors off guard, Jenkins concedes, plus "all the bays were hitting at the same time, so they were getting it from all sides."
But that's no excuse, Jenkins bluntly asserts, pointing to the availability of information and daily communications between managers, processors and fishing fleets.
"The fishermen are angry," Jenskins said. "All winter long we've been told the processors have the capacity to handle large runs. The fishermen have been told they are going to work hard to keep them off limits and bring more tenders into the bay. This is the sixth season in a row that they've gone on limits, and they've been caught unprepared.
"When this peak comes, this is the time for these guys to make money. This is the time for them to catch fish. And the bulk of the run is going past their nets and they're only allowed to catch 4,000 pounds? They can catch that in an hour."
A study last year by the Juneau-based McDowell Group found that 37 million fish worth $131 million to fishermen went unharvested at Bristol Bay in the past five years. In 2009 that number is still climbing.
In the 2009 annual processor survey, 13 companies said they had capacity to handle the projected catch of 24 million sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay this summer. A three percent boost in tendering capacity was also added to haul excess fish to other plants at King Cove and Kodiak. But it still doesn't seem to be enough, agreed Cora Crome, fisheries aide to the Governor.
"We have a consistent pattern in the Bay where it's clear that there is a need out there for a little bit more processing right at the peak," Crome said last year, after a "foregone harvest" of three million harvestable red salmon swam away upstream.
Fishermen for years have urged the state to allow foreign companies to come into the Bay to pull up the processing slack. Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was visiting Dillingham last week, posed that question to Tom Winihan, manager at Peter Pan Seafoods.
"My personal opinion," Winihan told KDLG, " is that if we allow foreigners to come in and process they should have to adhere to all the same regulations that we do, the same hiring and wage standards, bonding standards for paying fishermen - if they do that, great, we will compete with them. But they won't do that, so we can't compete with them."
"Everyone is frustrated," said Susie Jenkins. "When their fishermen are unhappy it's hard to have a good working relationship. It's tough on all the managers... but nothing has been done to remedy the situation and it just reverberates to everybody."
Meanwhile, a fleet of 1,300 drift gillnetters are participating in the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, similar to last year. Ditto the advance sockeye prices of 62-68 cents a pound.
Safety laws looming?
Congress is poised to put tough new laws on the books aimed at improving safety on U.S. fishing boats. It would be first big overhaul of the nation's commercial fishing safety laws in more than 20 years. According to the Seattle Times, the proposed rules would require extensive new construction and equipment standards for fishing boats as small as 50 feet. Boats would need a so called "stability letter" from a maritime classification society outlining safe operation. Safety training for skippers would be mandatory, and Coast Guard vessel inspections, now voluntary, would be required every other year.
Although fishing related deaths have dropped significantly, the industry still has the highest on-the-job fatality rate - more than 25 times the national average. According to the Coast Guard, 55 percent of the 934 U.S. fishing deaths from 1992-2007 were from vessels flooding, capsizing, or sinking. Vessels between 50 and 79 feet had the highest loss rates in the entire U.S. fishing fleet. However, current rules don't require any naval architects to approve construction or safe operating guidelines for boats of that size.
The legislation has been under development for more than two years, the Times said, and is expected to go to the full House for a vote this summer. The bill has yet to encounter any major opposition.
Real fishing blog
Most blogs are aimed at providing news and opinions, and there are lots of sites that offer seafood for sale. A new Kodiak blog gives a real glimpse of the fishing life by taking viewers out to the docks, into fish holds and through a processing plant.
"I really wanted to emphasize our direct access to the resource. It's what sets us apart from other online seafood retailers," said Ian Whiddon, producer of "Today's Catch: Fresh news from Kodiak's waterfront." Whiddon also is co-manager at Island Seafoods, a fish market and processing plant that is part of the Pacific Seafood Group.
"I have a personal relationship with the fishermen and the crews on the boat. We see the fish from the boat, taken from the boat holds and put up in boxes and out the door," he added. "Supermarkets and big chain stores are so anonymous. I wanted to put a face to the product that is being served to your family."
It's Whiddon's fishing photos that really let people connect to the seafood they're eating - and the folks who are catching it. Today's Catch also includes "show and tell" recipes and gives a real taste of a day in the life of fishing the busy Kodiak waterfront. Find the blog at www.islandseafoods.com.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around Alaska. Welch lives in Kodiak.